Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 39

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Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
Robertsbridge

CHAPTER XXXIX


ROBERTSBRIDGE


Horace Walpole in difficulties—A bibliophile's threat—Salehurst—Bodiam—Northiam—Queen Elizabeth's dinner and shoes—Brightling—Jack Fuller—Turner in East Sussex—The Burwash country—Sussex superstitions—Sussex Folk and Sussex Ways—Liberals and Conservatives—The Sussex character—Independent bellringers—"Silly Sussex"—Burwash at Cricket—James Hurdis—A donkey race—"A hint to great and little men"—Henry Burwash—Etchingham—Sir John Lade and the Prince—Ticehurst and Wadhurst.


Robertsbridge is not in itself a particularly attractive place; but it has a good inn, and many interesting villages may be reached from it, the little light railway that runs from the town to Tenterden, along the Rother valley, making the exploration of this part of Sussex very simple.

Horace Walpole came to difficulties hereabout during his Sussex journey. His sprightly and heightened account is in one of the letters: "The roads grew bad beyond all badness, the night dark beyond all darkness, our guide frightened beyond all frightfulness. However, without being at all killed, we got up, or down—I forget which, it was so dark,—a famous precipice called Silver Hill, and about ten at night arrived at a wretched village called Rotherbridge. We had still six miles hither, but determined to stop, as it would be a pity to break our necks before we had seen all we had intended. But, alas! there was only one bed to be had: all the rest were inhabited by smugglers, whom the people of the house called mountebanks; and with one of whom the lady of the den told Mr. Chute he might lie. We did not at all take to this society, but, armed with links and lanthorns, set out again upon this impracticable journey. At two o'clock in the morning we got hither to a still worse inn, and that crammed with excise officers, one of whom had just shot a smuggler. However, as we were neutral powers, we have passed safely through both armies hitherto, and can give you a little farther history of our wandering through these mountains, where the young gentlemen are forced to drive their curricles with a pair of oxen. The only morsel of good road we have found, was what even the natives had assured us were totally impracticable; these were eight miles to Hurst Monceaux."

Bodiam Castle.png

Bodiam Castle

A pretty memento of the Cistercian Abbey here, of which small traces remain on the bank of the river, has wandered to the Bodleian, in the shape of an old volume containing the inscription: "This book belongs to St. Mary of Robertsbridge; whoever shall steal or sell it, let him be Anathema Maranatha!" Since no book was ever successfully protected by anything less tangible than a chain, it came into other hands, underneath being written: "I John Bishop of Exeter know not where the aforesaid house is; nor did I steal this book, but acquired it in a lawful way." On the suppression of the Abbey of Robertsbridge by Henry VIII. the lands passed to Sir William Sidney, grandfather of Sir Philip.

Salehurst, just across the river from Robertsbridge, has a noble church, standing among trees on the hill side—the hill which Walpole found so precipitous. Within, the church is not perhaps quite so impressive as without, but it has monuments appertaining probably to the Culpepers, once a far-reaching aristocratic Sussex family, which we met first at Ardingly, and which is now extinct or existent only among the peasantry.

The first station on the Rother valley light railway is Bodiam, only a few steps from Bodiam Castle sitting serenely like a bird on the waters of her moat. This building in appearance and form fulfils most of the conditions of the castle, and by retaining water in its moat perhaps wins more respect than if it had stood a siege. (Local tradition indeed credits it with that mark of active merit, but history is silent.) It was built in the fourteenth century by Sir Edward Dalyngruge, a hero of Cressy and Poictiers. It is now a ruin within, but (as Mr. Griggs' drawing shows) externally in fair preservation and a very interesting and romantic spectacle.

Below Bodiam is Ewhurst, and a little farther east, close to the Kentish border, Northiam. Ewhurst has no particular interest, but Northiam is a village apart. Knowing what we do of Sussex speech we may be certain that Northiam is not pronounced by the native as it is spelt. Norgem is its local style, just as Udiham is Udgem and Bodiam Bodgem. But though he will not give Northiam its pleasant syllables, the Northiam man is proud of his village. He has a couplet:

Oh rare Northiam, thou dost far exceed
Beckley, Peasmarsh, Udimore and Brede.

Northiam's superiority to these pleasant spots is not absolute; but there are certain points in which the couplet is sound. For example, although Brede Place has no counterpart in Northiam, and although beside Udimore's lovely name Northiam has an uninspired prosaic ring, yet Northiam is alone in the possession of Queen Elizabeth's Oak, the tree beneath which that monarch, whom we have seen on a progress in West Sussex, partook in 1573 of a banquet, on her way to Rye. The fare came from the kitchen of the timbered house hard by, then the residence of Master Bishopp. During the visit her Majesty changed her shoes, and the discarded pair is still treasured at Brickwall, the neighbouring seat of the Frewens, the great family of Northiam for many generations. The shoes are of green damask silk, with heels two and a half inches high and pointed toes. The Queen was apparently so well satisfied with her repast that on her return journey three days later she dined beneath the oak once more. But she changed no more shoes.

Brickwall, which is occasionally shown, is a noble old country mansion, partly Elizabethan and partly Stuart. In the church are many Frewen memorials, the principal of which are in the Frewen mausoleum, a comparatively new erection. Accepted Frewen, Archbishop of York, was from Northiam.

In a field near the Rother at Northiam was discovered, in the year 1822, a Danish vessel, which had probably sunk in the ninth century in some wide waterway now transformed to land or shrunk to the dimensions of the present stream. Her preservation was perfect. Horsfield thus describes the ship: "Her dimensions were, from head to stern, 65 feet, and her width 14 feet, with cabin and forecastle; and she appears to have originally had a whole deck. She was remarkably strongly built; her bill pieces and keels measuring 2 feet over, her cross beams, five in number, 18 inches by 8, with her other timbers in proportion; and in her caulking was a species of moss peculiar to the country in which she was built. In the cabin and other parts of the vessel were found a human skull; a pair of goat's horns attached to a part of the cranium; a dirk or poniard, about half an inch of the blade of which had wholly resisted corrosion; several glazed and ornamental tiles of a square form; some bricks which had formed the fire hearth; several parts of shoes, or rather sandals, fitting low on the foot, one of which was apparently in an unfinished state, having a last remaining in it, all of them very broad at the toes; two earthern jars and a stone mug, all of very ancient shape, a piece of board exhibiting about thirty perforations, probably designed for keeping the lunar months, or some game or amusement; with many other antique relics."

Four miles west of Robertsbridge, up hill and down, is Brightling, whose Needle, standing on Brightling Down, 646 feet high, is visible from most of the eminences in this part of Sussex. The obelisk, together with the neighbouring observatory, was built on the site of an old beacon by the famous Jack Fuller—famous no longer, but in his day (he died in 1834 aged seventy-seven) a character both in London and in Sussex. He was big and bluff and wealthy and the squire of Rose Hill. He sat for Sussex from 1801 to 1812, and was once carried from the House by the Sergeant at Arms and his minions, for refusing to give way in a debate and calling the Speaker "the insignificant little fellow in a wig." His election cost him £20,000 plus £30,000 subscribed by the county. When Pitt offered him a peerage he said no: "I was born Jack Fuller and Jack Fuller I'll die." When he travelled from Rose Hill to London Mr. Fuller's progresses were almost regal. The coach was provisioned as if for arctic exploration and coachman and footmen alike were armed with swords and pistols. ("Honest Jack," as Mr. Lower remarks, put a small value upon the honesty of others.) Mr. Fuller had two hobbies, music and science. He founded the Fullerian professorships (which he called his two children), and contributed liberally to the Royal Institution; and his musical parties in London were famous. But whether it is true that when the Brightling choir dissatisfiedhim he presented the church with nine bassoons, I cannot say.

John Fuller has a better claim to be remembered in Sussex by his purchase of Bodiam Castle, when its demolition was threatened, and by his commission to Turner to make pictures in the Rape of Hastings, five of which were engraved and published in folio form, in 1819, under the title Views in Sussex. One of these represents the Brightling Observatory as seen from Rosehill Park. As a matter of fact, the observatory, being of no interest, is almost invisible, although Mr. Reinagle, A.R.A., who supplies the words to the pictures, calls it the "most important point in the scene." Furthermore, he says that the artist has expressed a shower proceeding "from the left corner." Another picture is the Vale of Ashburnham, with the house in the middle distance, Beachy Head beyond, and in the foreground woodcutters carrying wood in an ox waggon. "The whole," says Mr. Reinagle, A.R.A., "is happily composed, if I may use the term." He then adds: "The eye of the spectator, on looking at this beautifully painted scene, roves with an eager delight from one hill to another, and seems to play on the dappled woods till arrested by the seat of Lord Ashburnham." Other pictures in the folio are "Pevensey Bay from Crowhurst Park," a very beautiful scene, "Battle Abbey," and "The Vale of Heathfield," painted from a point above the road, with Heathfield House on the left, the tower on the right, the church in the centre in the middle distance, and the sea on the horizon: an impressive but not strictly veracious landscape.

In Brightling church is a bust to John Fuller, with the motto: "Utile nihil quod non honestum." A rector in Fuller's early days was William Hayley, who died in 1789, a zealous antiquary. His papers relating to the history of Sussex, are now, like those of Sir William Burrell, in the British Museum.

Our next village is Burwash, three miles in the north, built, like all the villages in this switchback district, on a hill. We are now, indeed, well in the heart of the fatiguing country which we touched at Mayfield, where one eminence is painfully won only to reveal another. One can be as parched on a road in the Sussex hop country as in the Arabian desert. The eye, however, that is tired of hop poles and hills can find sweet gratification in the cottages. Sussex has charming cottages from end to end of her territory, but I think the hop district on the Kentish side has some of the prettiest. Blackberries too may be set down among the riches of the sand-hill villages.

In Richard Jefferies' essay, "The Country-side: Sussex" (in Field and Hedgerow), describing this district of the country, is an amusing passage touching superstitions of these parts, picked up during hopping:

"In and about the kiln I learned that if you smash a frog with a stone, no matter how hard you hit him, he cannot die till sunset. You must be careful not to put on any new article of clothing for the first time on a Saturday, or some severe punishment will ensue. One person put on his new boots on a Saturday, and on Monday broke his arm. Some still believe in herbs, and gather wood-betony for herb tea, or eat dandelion leaves between slices of dry toast. There is an old man living in one of the villages who has reached the age of a hundred and sixty years, and still goes hop-picking. Ever so many people had seen him, and knew all about him; an undoubted fact, a public fact; but I could not trace him to his lair. His exact whereabouts could not be fixed. I live in hopes of finding him in some obscure 'Hole' yet (many little hamlets are 'Holes,' as Froghole, Foxhole). What an exhibit for London! Did he realise his own value, he would soon come forth. I joke, but the existence of this antique person is firmly believed in."

Burwash is one of the few Sussex villages that has been made the subject of a book. The Rev. John Coker Egerton's Sussex Folk and Sussex Ways (from which I have already occasionally quoted) was written here, around materials collected during the author's period as rector of Burwash. Mr. Egerton was curate of Burwash from 1857 to 1862, and from 1865 to 1867, when he became rector and remained in the living until his death in 1888. His book is a kindly collection of the shrewd and humorous sayings of his Sussex parishioners, anecdotes of characteristic incidents, records of old customs now passing or passed away—the whole fused by the rector's genial personality.

It is to Burwash and Mr. Egerton that we owe some characteristic scraps of Sussex philosophy. Thus, Mr. Egerton tells of an old conservative whose advice to young men was this: "Mind you don't never have nothing in no way to do with none of their new-fangled schemes." Another Sussex cynic defined party government with grim impartiality: "Politics are about like this: I've got a sow in my yard with twelve little uns, and they little uns can't all feed at once, because there isn't room enough; so I shut six on 'em out of the yard while tother six be sucking, and the six as be shut out, they just do make a hem of a noise till they be let in; and then they be just as quiet as the rest."

The capacity of the Sussex man to put his foot down and keep it there, is shown in the refusal of Burwash to ring the bells when George IV., then Prince of Wales, passed through the village on his return to Brighton from a visit to Sir John Lade at Etchingham; the reason given being that the First Gentleman in Europe when rung in on his way to Sir John's had said nothing about beer. This must have been during one of the Prince's peculiarly needy periods, for the withholding of strong drink from his friends was never one of his failings. Another Burwash radical used to send up to the rectory with a message that he was about to gather fruit and the rector must send down for the tithe. The rector's man would go down—and receive one gooseberry from a basket of ten: all that was to be gathered that day.

Another Burwash man posed his vicar more agreeably and humorously in another manner. Finding him a little in liquor the pastor would have warned him against the habit, but the man was too quick. How was it, he asked the vicar with well affected or real concern, that whenever he had had too much to drink he felt more religious than at any other time?

The Burwash records indeed go far to redeem Sussex men from the epithet "silly," which is traditionally theirs. Concerning this old taunt, I like the rector's remarks in Idlehurst. The phrase, he says, "is better after all than 'canny owd Cummerlan'' or calling ourselves 'free and enlightened citizens' or 'heirs to all the ages.' But suppose Sussex as silly as you like, the country wants a large preserve of fallow brains; you can't manure the intellect for close cropping. Isn't it Renan who attributes so much to solid Breton stupidity in his ancestors?" I notice that Mr. H. G. Wells, in his very interesting book, Mankind in the Making, is in support of this suggestion. The Idlehurst rector, in contrasting Londoners with Sussex folk, continues: "The Londoner has all his strength in the front line: one can never tell what reserves the countryman may not deploy in his slow way." (Some old satirist of the county had it that the crest of the true Sussex peasant is a pig couchant, with the motto "I wunt be druv." I give this for what it is worth.)

It is to be doubted if any county has a monopoly of silliness. The fault of Sussex people rather is to lack reserves, not of wisdom but of effort. You see this in cricket, where although the Sussex men have done some of the most brilliant things in the history of the game (even before the days of their Oriental ally), they have probably made a greater number of tame attempts to cope with difficulties than any other eleven. For the "staying of a rot" Sussex has had but few qualifications. The cricket test is not everything: but character tells there just as in any other employment. Burwash, however, must be exempted from this particular charge, for, whatever its form may be now, its eleven had once a terrible reputation. I find in the county paper for 1771 an advertisement to the effect that Burwash, having "challenged all its neighbours without effect," invites a match with any parish whatsoever in all Sussex.

Mr. Egerton was not the first parson to record the manners of the Burwash parishioner. The Rev. James Hurdis, curate there towards the end of the preceding century, and afterwards Professor of Poetry at Oxford (we saw his grave at Bishopstone), had written a blank verse poem in the manner of Cowper, with some of the observation of Crabbe, entitled "The Village Curate," which is a record of his thoughts and impressions in his Burwash days. One could hardly say that "The Village Curate" would bear reprinting at the present time; we have moved too far from its pensiveness, and an age that does not read "The Task" and only talks about Crabbe is hardly likely to reach out for Hurdis. But within its limits "The Village Curate" is good, alike in its description of scenery, its reflections and its satire. The Burwash donkey race is capital:—

Then comes the ass-race. Let not wisdom frown,
If the grave clerk look on, and now and then
Bestow a smile; for we may see, Alcanor,
In this untoward race the ways of life.
Are we not asses all? We start and run,
And eagerly we press to pass the goal,
And all to win a bauble, a lac'd hat.
Was not great Wolsey such? He ran the race,
And won the hat. What ranting politician,
What prating lawyer, what ambitious clerk,
But is an ass that gallops for a hat?
For what do Princes strive, but golden hats?
For diadems, whose bare and scanty brims
Will hardly keep the sunbeam from their eyes.
For what do Poets strive? A leafy hat,
Without or crown or brim, which hardly screens
The empty noddle from the fist of scorn,
Much less repels the critic's thund'ring arm.

And here and there intoxication too
Concludes the race. Who wins the hat, gets drunk.
Who wins a laurel, mitre, cap, or crown,
Is drunk as he. So Alexander fell,
So Haman, Cæsar, Spenser, Wolsey, James.

I find in the Sussex paper for 1792 the following contribution to the history of Burwash: "A Hint to Great and Little Men.—Last Thursday morning a butcher and a shopkeeper of Burwash, in this County, went into a field near that town, with pistols, to decide a quarrel of long standing between them. The lusty Knight of the Cleaver having made it a practice to insult his antagonist, who is a very little man, the great disparity between them in size rendered this the only eligible alternative for the latter. The butcher took care to inform his wife of the intended meeting, in hopes that she would give the Constables timely notice thereof. But the good woman not having felt so deeply interested in his fate as he expected, to make sure, he sent to the Constable himself, and then marched reluctantly to the field, where the little, spirited shopkeeper was parading with a considerable reserve of ammunition, lest his first fire should not take place. Now the affrighted butcher proceeded slowly to charge his pistols, alternately looking towards the town and his impatient adversary. This man of blood, all pale and trembling, at last began to despair of any friendly interference, when the Constable very seasonably appeared and forbade the duel, to his great joy, and the disappointment of the spectators."

Burwash had another great man of whom it is not very proud. Fuller shall describe him:—"Henry Burwash, so named, saith my Author[1] (which is enough for my discharge) from Burwash, a Town in this County. He was one of Noble Alliance. And when this is said, all is said to his commendation, being otherwise neither good for Church nor State, Soveraign nor Subjects; Covetous, Ambitious, Rebellious, Injurious.

"Say not, what makes he here then amongst the worthies? For though neither Ethically nor Theologically, yet Historically he was remarkable, affording something for our Information though not Imitation.

"He was recommended by his kinsman Bartholomew de Badilismer (Baron of Leeds in Kent) to King Edward the second, who preferred him Bishop of Lincoln. It was not long before, falling into the King's displeasure, his Temporalities were seized on, and afterwards on his submission restored. Here, instead of new Gratitude, retayning his old Grudge, he was most forward to assist the Queen in the deposing of her husband. He was twice Lord Treasurer, once Chancellor, and once sent over Ambassador to the Duke of Bavaria. He died Anno Domini 1340.

"Such as mind to be merry may read the pleasant Story of his apparition, being condemned after Death to be viridis viridarius, a green Forrester because in his life-time he had violently inclosed other men's Grounds into his Park. Surely such Fictions keep up the best Park of Popery (Purgatory), whereby their fairest Game and greatest Gaine is preserved."

Etchingham, the station next Robertsbridge, is famous for its church windows, and its brasses to the Etchinghams of the past, an illustrious race of Sussex barons. Among the brasses is that of William de Etchingham, builder of the church, who died in 1345. The inscription, in French, runs:—"I was made and formed of Earth; and now I have returned to Earth. William de Etchingham was my name. God have pity on my soul; and all you who pass by, pray to Him for me." Certainly no church in Sussex has so many interesting brasses as these. A moat once surrounded the God's acre, and legend had it that at the bottom was a great bell which might never be drawn forth until six yoke of white oxen were harnessed to it. Pity that the moat was allowed to run dry and the harmless fiction exposed.

Sir John Lade, diminutive associate of George IV. in his young days (and afterwards, coming upon disaster, coachman to the Earl of Anglesey), once lived at Haremere Hall, near by. As we have seen, the First Gentleman in Europe visited him there, and it was there one day, that, in default of other quarry, Sir John's gamekeeper only being able to produce a solitary pheasant, the Prince and his host shot ten geese as they swam across a pond, and laid them at the feet of Lady Lade. Sir

Shoyswell, near Ticehurst.png

Shoyswell, near Ticehurst.

John was the hero of the following exploit, recorded in the press in October, 1795:—"A curious circumstance occurred at Brighton on Monday se'nnight. Sir John Lade, for a trifling wager, undertook to carry Lord Cholmondeley on his back, from opposite the Pavilion twice round the Steine. Several ladies attended to be spectators of this extraordinary feat of the dwarf carrying the giant. When His Lordship declared himself ready, Sir John desired him to strip. 'Strip!' exclaimed the other; 'why surely you promised to carry me in my clothes!' 'By no means,' replied the Baronet; 'I engaged to carry you, but not an inch of clothes. So, therefore, My Lord, make ready, and let us not disappoint the ladies.' After much laughable altercation, it was at length decided that Sir John had won his wager, the Peer declining to exhibit in puris naturalibus."

Ticehurst and Wadhurst, which may be reached either by road or rail from Robertsbridge or Etchingham, both stand high, very near the Kentish border. To the east of Hurst Green on the road thither (a hamlet disproportionate and imposing, possessing, in the George Inn, a relic of the days when the coaches came this way), is Seacox Heath, now the residence of Lord Goschen, but once the home of George Gray, a member of the terrible Hawkhurst gang of smugglers. Ticehurst has a noble church, very ingeniously restored, with a square tower, some fine windows, old glass, a vestry curiously situated over the porch, and an interesting brass.

The Bell Inn, in the village, is said to date from the fifteenth century.

At Wadhurst are many iron grave slabs and a graceful slender spire. The massive door bears the date 1682. A high village, in good accessible country, discovery seems to be upon it. London is not so near as at Crowborough; but one may almost hear the jingling of the cabs.

  1. Weever's Funeral Monuments.